Art

One last post for the weekend on some books, music, and movies I’ve enjoyed this month.

I really haven’t had much time to read in all my travels, but on the plane to Beijing I got through a few of the poetry books that Sam had had me receive on Amazon to bring to her in China. They were all collections of poems by Philip Levine, originally from Detroit and up until recently residing in Fresno, CA. One of his earlier works, What Work Is, was the most moving to me, a depiction of working-class life in beautiful prose verse. Here’s “What Work Is”:

We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
You know what work is—if you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten places.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it’s someone else’s brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, ‘No,
we’re not hiring today,’ for any
reason he wants. You love your brother,
now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding you for your brother,
who’s not beside you or behind or
ahead because he’s home trying to
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German.
Works eight hours a night so he can sing
Wagner, the opera you hate most,
the worst music ever invented.
How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek? You’ve never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you’re too young or too dumb,
not because you’re jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,
just because you don’t know what work is.

Just back from travels this week, I final got through Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation, which I wrote about two posts earlier. I’ve got a stack of new books on my desk which are all non-fiction, so it’ll be some time before I get back into literature, but I’ve got a great list from Sam I’m excited to explore.

My May playlist consists of Sylvan Esso, Slowdive, Perfume Genius, Mac DeMarco, two singles released from Planetarium, and now one single from The National’s upcoming album.

Sylvan Esso’s What Now has really grown on me and is an excellent sequel to their debut a few years ago. I think the most toxic thing about the music is Amelia Meath’s voice, which has a strangely Southern, strangely street twang that works so well in an aggressively punk sort of way. It activates when she goes into a higher register of her voice; take the intro of “The Glow” where she’s reminiscing about sweet details from childhood, including “Deanna’s so beautiful / Pretending not to care” — right there she gives the end of that verse the perfect amount of kick to swing into a high-energy chorus. Looking up the lyrics just now on Genius, I just discovered that she’s referring to The Microphones’ The Glow Pt. 2 which is just awesome. Other songs I really like: “Song”, “Just Dancing”, “Signal”, and “Rewind”. I guess I would place them in a similar space in my musical landscape as CHVRCHES and Flock of Dimes (who is opening for them in August at the Fox Theater), but they are the most down-to-earth and free-styling of the three. My rating: 4/5

Slowdive was a new find for me (especially given that they’ve been on hiatus for almost as long as I’ve been alive), but the music sounds strangely familiar to me. There is a general similarity to a band I can’t for the life of me think of, but otherwise I hear connections to The Police, The War on Drugs, Pink Floyd, Broken Social Scene, and most of all, The Antlers. It’s the melodious moments when the lead singer’s voice reminds me of Peter Silberman (eg. the slower sections of “Don’t Know Why”) that this music really resonates the most with me. Other songs I like: “Slomo”, “Sugar for the Pill”, and “No Longer Making Time”. 4/5

Now, Perfume Genius has been the most exhilarating release of May and has really elevated their status in my mind since I saw Mike Hadreas as an opener for Belle & Sebastien at the Greek a few years ago. I highly recommend you listen to his interview on Song Exploder to hear directly from Mike how this album was a departure from past sounds. I would describe songs like “Slip Away” and “Wreath” as achieving something of a Yeasayer “I Remember” kind of epic cinematic scope, and it sure has been a long time since I’ve experienced music like this. There are also really elegant tunes like “Valley” and “Every Night”, sprawling gothic landscapes like “Sides” featuring a haunting Weyes Blood, and beautiful ballads like “Alan”. This album is really a cut above the rest in its ambition and intensity, and I suspect you will see this on a bunch of top-10 charts at the end of the year. My rating: 4.5/5

Mac DeMarco, meanwhile, has made the chillest album of the month that is also a complete joy to listen to. Where Real Estate feels like driving fast on a highway, Mac DeMarco’s This Old Dog feels like skating slow through a suburban neighborhood (likely with a pitbull following you). I enjoyed listening him talk about his life on WTF, but really it’s not essential knowledge to appreciate the attention to rich layering and sonic harmony throughout this album. I particularly like the use of synths in songs like “For the First Time”, “Dreams for Yesterday”, and “Watching Him Fade Away” to evoke disco and soul vibes alongside folksy guitar songs like “Baby You’re Out”, “One Another”, and “Still Beating”. The standout song is “A Wolf Who Wears Sheep’s Clothes” which features a really fresh slide effect on the lead guitar, accompanied by harmonica and claves in the background. Overall he’s like a modern stoner reincarnation of the old Cat Stevens. My rating: 4/5

Coming up is a collaboration between Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly & James McAlister called Planetarium. I’ve been quite fascinated by the promise of Sufjan Stevens side projects since loving Sisyphus, and the two songs that have been released so far, “Saturn” and “Mercury”, paint two very different portraits of what this project could overall sound like. The former is heavy Auto-Tune and almost becomes danceable, while the latter almost fits into Carrie & Lowell with a beautiful melody and a sprawling outro. Whichever direction the overall album heads, I am very much optimistic. Meanwhile, The National has unveiled some really sweet modernist graphic design and an intriguing song, “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness.” Overall the track is much more rocky than anything on Trouble Will Find You, which is not necessarily a direction I’m excited about, but nonetheless it sure is nice to hear Matt Berninger’s voice again.

Finally, films. I’ve only watched two films so far in May and they were both this weekend. If you liked Prometheus, which I totally did, then you’ll certainly like Alien: Covenant, which is a satisfying extension of the same scope and rich dynamism of characters/species. I’ve always loved the ambition of a story that introduces three very different forms of life: human, alien, and machine, and crafts a mythology that inexplicably ties the fate of all three. Humans, as before, are simultaneously cursed and blessed with the flaws of faith and love. In this sequel, the arguably best character of Prometheus, Michael Fassbender’s android David, gets a foil in the doppelganger American-accent version, Walter, and Ridley Scott employs some really delightful film magic in a long shot panning back and forth between the two Fassbenders as David teachers Walter how to play a musical instrument. Compared to a crappy film like Passengers which I was forced to watch on the plane back from China, this film seems to pack about tenfold more plot and character into the same space (pun intended). One thing that certainly helps is a cast of characters whose fate actually really matter to the audience. The final plot twist was fairly predictable, but that didn’t stop it from being a guilty pleasure to watch unfold. Turns out the other movie I watched this weekend was also a space film, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2. As much as I enjoyed the irreverent humor of the first one, and noted successful things happening in this sequel, I sort of lost interest halfway through and began to wonder whether the magic of Marvel is starting to wear off. I hope that Thor: Ragnarok pulls off a really different type of comedy that has a longer half life for me.

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